Ahead of their event together on Feb 6 at Cafe 1001, award-winning comedian and author Rosie Wilby interviews clinical psychologist Janice Hiller.
R: What happens in the brain as we move through the different stages of a romantic relationship?
J: Initially during a strong romantic attraction, the brain releases high levels of dopamine (DA) and noradrenaline (NA) and lowered levels of serotonin. This neurochemical balance causes feelings such euphoria, excitement, longing to be with the other, energy and elation. Compulsive thinking about the other person is another feature, and anxiety about the relationship is often present too. This phase of being “in love” is much sought after in our culture and has featured in art and literature for centuries. Gradually over time these powerful emotions reduce in intensity as brain chemistry returns to earlier states, and then people begin to feel calmer and more secure.
R: Does the way that the brain works in love make long-term monogamy somewhat challenging, particularly now that we live much longer and have the internet and dating apps presenting us with so many choices?
J: Research showing that the three components of adult love relationships – basic sex drive, romantic attraction and secure attachment – can act on us independently. This means that we can have a secure base with one partner but experience strong passion towards another. Not everyone struggles with monogamy, but extra-couple involvement has always existed. There are many reasons why someone breaks the couple bond, and often people don’t understand their own motivations. These are explored if a couple has therapy to work out what to do. Opportunity is crucial, and internet dating has created many ways in which individuals can find someone else to express themselves with, emotionally and physically, outside the committed partnership.
R: In my book Is Monogamy Dead?, I interviewed a number of people who have turned to polyamory and are having consensually-declared multiple relationships. I’ve heard anthropologist Helen Fisher talk about how it’s possible to be in lust with one person, in love with another and in a more attached, companionate partnership with another. This is also what you are suggesting above. These are all quite distinct types of connection. However, I’m undecided on whether a human being can simultaneously be ‘in love’ with more than one person. Personally speaking, I’ve always found that particular stage to be so very obsessive that it’s hard to think about anything or anyone else. What do you think?
J: Emotional states accompanying the “in love” phase of a romantic relationship are very powerful. Some of the experiences are captured by the questions in a Passionate Love Scale devised by two American researchers, Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher. Items on the PLS include preoccupation with the other, idealisation of that person’s qualities and intrusive thinking – the feeling of the other person is “always on my mind”. This focused compulsive thinking is underpinned by lowered serotonin levels and is thought to be an important phase in the mating process, so only one person at a time can be the object of such obsessive thoughts. People often find it hard to get on with work or studying during early stage romantic attraction!
R: I’m now working on a podcast called The Breakup Monologues and I’m particularly interested in what happens when relationships end. It’s something we don’t talk about enough. If, as is often suggested, the high of romantic love is similar to the high we get from taking an addictive drug like cocaine, is there a similar set of ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when a lover is suddenly no longer available to us?
J: Reactions to the end of a relationship vary considerably, depending on early experiences, how secure/insecure the person is, and how the break up happens. Brain chemistry varies too. Some people get angry when hope and expectations are not fulfilled because centres in the prefrontal cortex that assess reward-expectation are closely connected to brain networks for rage. This is the frustration-aggression hypothesis and anger occurs when we don’t get an expected reward, i.e. response from the loved one. Other people get a despair response when dopamine making cells suddenly decrease their activity and they become depressed. Also, there can be a panic response in the stress system which then releases cortisol, the “stress hormone” which activates many brain systems to reduce stress.